How to Make Any Plan Actionable
Updated: Mar 6, 2020
So you have a vision and strategy for your company — great! What’s next? How do you turn a plan into results?
When I was a consultant, this was what I focused on every day. As a coach, I help my clients think through how they can achieve their goals. This isn’t just for business strategies or company goals.
This is a simple approach for any plan.
Begin with the end in mind
Before we decide on “how to get there,” I’ll assume that you’ve already taken stock of where you are versus where you want to go.
Just in case, though, let’s double-check. Have you really pressure-tested your objectives? Do you have a super clear view of what success will look like? Is it far enough away from where you are now, but not too far?
I like to remind myself of the SMART framework for setting goals. Your goals should be:
Simple enough to understand
Measurable in outcome
Appropriate to what you’re trying to accomplish
Realistic yet challenging
Time-bound, meaning finite with a target
Once you have a firm “yes” for each, it’s time to…
Think three levels deep
No more, no less. What do I mean by this?
For example, if you’re starting with a CEO-level goal, you need to be able to direct the people one level below the CEO and influence and monitor the people just below them. If you have a goal of designing an app, you need to be able to direct the initiatives that underpin that design and influence and monitor the actions of those initiatives.
The idea is that this deliberately scales with complexity, and only going two more levels down keeps you from micromanaging and wasting time.
Conversely, not going at least two more levels down probably means that you’re not being effective and getting the right traction.
Here’s a real example from some work I did with a startup. Based on survey input and team discussion, we aligned on a goal to improve team collaboration. There were clear metrics that we could measure here to drive toward outcomes that the executives wanted for the organization.
One initiative was to “create cross-functional teams.” There were others, but this was the most important one. Underneath that, were actions:
Decide on overall structure
Build a simple rollout plan
Solidify governance and leadership
Communicate new structure internally
For people that owned an initiative, though, they had to think even a level deeper. For example, underneath “Decide on overall structure” were tasks like:
Review structures in larger startups
Hold a working session to clarify objectives
Downselect on two or three options
Decide on final approach with the leadership team
Always think three levels deep.
This is another way to look at it, borrowed in part from my time in the military:
Level 1: Goals (Strategy)
What do you actually want to accomplish? Find what your real focus areas are, and disaggregate them into smaller parts. Use issue trees to break apart hairy problems and understand the areas that matter, then go after them.
These are your end goals, and each should have clear metrics of success or KPIs associated with them.
Level 2: Initiatives (Operations)
How will you get there? Create supporting initiatives underneath each goal that drive toward success. Take one individual objective and ask the question: “What steps do we need to take to accomplish this goal?”
You’ll probably find three to five things that actually matter here, and often they’ll be in order, like a process.
Level 3: Actions (Tactics)
What will you do? For each initiative, decide on actions. There are specific tasks that must be done to check off an initiative as complete.
Again, you’ll probably find three to five things that actually matter, and often they’ll be in order. Importantly, though, actions are the most tangible by design. They should have clear owners assigned, with resources and blockers well articulated.
Which brings us to the final step…
After you’ve clearly defined your goals and drilled down into the supporting initiatives and actions, it’s go time.
Each level, but especially the actions, should have a few (if not all) of the following:
Owners: Mandatory. Who is actually going to be accountable for this being done? Do not make this more than one person, it just gets confusing and too easy to deflect that accountability.
Support: Who else might be involved? Is there anyone you need to report to, check-in with, consult with, or inform? Who else can help? It might be multiple people.
Resources: What resources do you need? Are there financial resources, team resources, access to data? Another way to think through this is by asking “what will stand in our way?”
Deliverables: This is the second-most important item on the list after “owner.” Clear deliverables make actions clear. Focus on the actual thing that you need as an outcome of the action. This is not process-y like “completed interview” or “refined approach.” It’s tangible like “interview summary notes” or “one-pager on approach.”
Timeline: When will this be done by, and/or when will it be started? We sometimes called this work planning, and it can be done neatly in a project management software tool or Excel spreadsheet.
Set clear objectives ahead of any planning process. The more clearly you define your goals, with supporting KPIs for success, the better your underlying initiatives and actions will be.
Think three levels deep, which means going two more levels down from the goal. What are the supporting initiatives that will help you accomplish this goal? Are they clear and relevant?
Finally, underpin each initiative with clear actions. Who is going to do those actions and by when? What are the deliverables and what support or resources might be needed?
Regardless of how tactical the outcome is, the key message here is to try to think three levels deep.
Put yourself at level one and work down two more levels. Avoid going too much deeper or stopping short and you’ll avoid headaches along the way.
Good luck, and let me know how it goes.
Originally published in The Ascent